Afghanistan, the thriller that is all too real

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been opined so assuredly by so many who know so little. I'm talking about Canada's involvement in the Afghan war, of course.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been opined so assuredly by so many who know so little.

I’m talking about Canada’s involvement in the Afghan war, of course. And while I owe an apology to Churchill for that quote, it’s true nonetheless.

Ninety-nine per cent of the politicians and pundits who fill our TV screens with firmly held views on Afghanistan couldn’t tell a Tajik from a Pashtun if one invited them over for dinner and served them Qabili Palau.

So it was with great interest that I opened Chris Alexander’s The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Alexander knows what he is talking about. He was Canada’s first ambassador in Kabul from 2003-2005 and, from then until 2009, was one of the deputy special representatives of the United Nations mission there (he’s currently slumming it as a member of Parliament in Ottawa).

The two roles put Alexander at the centre of the tumultuous Afghan saga during many of its most critical chapters. Friends in Kabul report that, unlike conventionally desk-bound Canadian ambassadors, he got out of the office and had one of the deepest and most diverse networks in the country. This makes his book livelier than the typical diplomatic memoir. It is liberally sprinkled with quotes from village elders, Afghan poets and battle-hardened mujahedin, along with firsthand reports from some of the country’s most untraveled districts.

The book begins with a sketch of Afghanistan’s history. You can’t understand the current conflict without a sense for the country’s rich past, from its fabled days as a crossroad of nations two millennia ago to the Russian war in the 1980s and civil war in the 1990s. Alexander makes the point Afghanistan is not the barely civilized basket case it is often made out to be, but instead has a history that includes periods of stability; of being a “regular” country that can be rebuilt.

Then he takes us briskly through the three phases of the post-9/11 conflict: the “Bonn process” of 2001 to 2004 that saw a restored Afghan government put in place with international support; the resurgent fighting and fraying relationship between the Karzai government and its Western supporters from 2005 to 2007; and the Afghan and Western response to that crisis, including President Obama’s “surge.” It sounds like dreary going, but Alexander makes it read more like Rolling Stone than Henry Kissinger.

One of the failings of a diplomatic memoir is excessive discretion. Alexander avoids this, notably about Pakistan’s not-so-secret support for the Taliban. Dropping the official fiction that Pakistan is doing its best to support the international mission, he describes in detail the “Pakistani colonels and brigadiers … now back in the saddle, coaxing the coals of insurgency back into flame” with weapons, training, money and protection in Pakistani havens. He even describes the notorious attack on the Serena Hotel and how one of the suicide bombers was caught on security video phoning a number in Pakistan on his mobile for instructions.

If he had to cut anything from the book to protect either diplomatic confidences or his current position as a Canadian parliamentary secretary, it must have been spectacular indeed.

He also avoids the “inside the beltway” obsession of many ex-diplomats with political manoeuvring back home. Alexander spares us a blow-by-blow expose of Canadian decision making and torture scandals, probably disappointing many critics of the mission.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is not the military campaigns, diplomatic manoeuvring or even the spectacular cultural kaleidoscope that is Afghanistan. It is the stunning courage of the individual Afghans who risk their lives everyday to rebuild their country.

Hardly a chapter passes without a village elder being beheaded, a police chief blowing up or translators being seized by warlords. Even teaching in a school, rebuilding a road or organizing an election is an act of courage.

“There arguably has never been a more willing partner for American-led nation building than Afghanistan,” says Alexander. For every warlord or Taliban fighter, there seem to be 10 dedicated Afghans working thanklessly in ministries or reconstruction projects. He is an eloquent supporter of the mission.

But he doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges, pointing out that, “Wounds left by 30 years of war still are raw. Terrorism is a daily menace. Roads are often littered with Taliban bombs. Regional warlords, drug barons and corrupt government officials all flout the conceit of a functional and unified nation.”

It raises the question of how far we should go in intervening to rebuild shattered countries.

Why were we relatively successful in Bosnia, but never put boots on the ground in Darfur?

Rory Stewart, a British MP who spent years in Iraq and Kabul, likens the challenge to emergency rescues of mountain climbers. We should rescue when we can, he says, but “in interventions, as in a mountain rescue, the moral right and duty to protect lives does not require futile or destructive adventures.”

An Ekos poll released last year had just 28 per cent of Canadians in favour of supporting an extension of our Afghan mission past 2011. I am one of the minority, I suppose, still in favour of helping the Afghans rebuild and resist Taliban attackers. It is a worthy and generous goal, and I wonder sometimes why so many Canadians are instinctively against it. I know lots of generous, public-minded Canadians who think we should pull out unilaterally tomorrow.

Perhaps it is that too many Canadians think any initiative involving the United States must, by definition, be suspect; they see an oil pipeline or Haliburton behind every US aid worker. Many others have absorbed the view that any use of force by our army is wrong, even in a good cause. Others simply don’t believe the repeated claims by our leaders that what happens in far-away Afghanistan makes much difference for Canadians.

You may be inclined to disagree with me about whether Canada should keep supporting the Afghans. But before you make a final decision, you should read The Long Way Back. I doubt you’ll find a more readable, insightful take on the Afghan conflict.

And if you run into any politicians or pundits telling you what to think, you should ask them if they’ve read it too.

The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace, By Chris Alexander. HarperCollins; 281 pages; $32.99.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He served with Alexander in the Canadian foreign service in the 1990s.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)
Backcountry busy: COVID-19 has Yukoners heading for the hills

Stable conditions for avalanches have provided a grace period for backcountry newcomers

Several people enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Coast High Country Inn Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 26. The Yukon government announced on Jan. 25 that residents of Whitehorse, Ibex Valley, Marsh Lake and Mount Lorne areas 65 and older can now receive their vaccines. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Vaccine appointments available in Whitehorse for residents 65+

Yukoners 65 and older living in Whitehorse are now eligible to receive… Continue reading

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read